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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Profit and Loss (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first and second seasons. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

It seems we’ve reached the point where Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has figured out a base level of quality, an “average” zone that it can pitch to without too much effort or breaking a sweat. We’ve had three episodes in a row now that haven’t been brilliant, but have been far from terrible. Solid, watchable stuff. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but it took Star Trek: The Next Generation longer to find that base level of quality, while Star Trek: Voyager settled into a zone where that “average” was a lot lower.

Profit and Loss is unlikely to be anybody’s favourite episode, but it remains thoroughly unobjectionable. It features the cast playing their roles reasonably well, some hints at world-building and even a guest spot for Garak. Nobody will really remember Profit and Loss as a brilliant piece of television after completing a lengthy Deep Space Nine rewatch, but they also won’t curse its name. It’ll simply be an episode in the middle-to-end section of the second season that wasn’t too bad and wasn’t too great.

Love him and leave him...

Love him and leave him…

Taken on its own, an enjoyable enough little story that focuses on characters outside the usual chain of command. Focusing on Garak and Quark, it gives us a sense that there’s so much happening on the station under the radar of Sisko and the Federation. Indeed, the Federation are pretty impotent here. Sisko vows to protect his asylum seekers, only to be overruled by the Bajoran Provisional Government. Then Odo simply ignores the wishes of the Bajoran Provisional Government (and Sisko), but suffers absolutely no consequences for it.

Which brings us to one of the more interesting aspects of Profit and Loss. Quite simply, it’s an episode which works quite well in the context of Deep Space Nine‘s on-going status quo, but fails as a piece of an overarching plot. There’s a curious distinction there. Profit and Loss fits with what we know of Cardassia. Well, almost. At one point, Sisko indicates that Cardassia has “offered to hand over a half a dozen Bajoran prisoners in exchange for” the dissidents, which feels like it contradicts the whole “Cardassia has no Bajoran prisoners” that was emphasised in The Homecoming. You’d imagine even owning up to having a few kept in reserve would spark a diplomatic incident.

He's brought friends, too...

He’s brought friends, too…

But I digress. We get a bit of insight into the Cardassian mind. Discussing Cardassian literature with Bashir, Garak offers the following critique, “It all comes down to a question of loyalty. My dear Doctor, Yiri had to choose between protecting his brother and protecting the state. He chose the state, as would I, every time.” When Garak suggests that “the return of Hogue and Rekelen is in the best interests of the Cardassian Empire”, Sisko clarifies, “Or at least in the best interest of the Cardassian military.” Garak inquiries, “Is there a difference?”

The notion of an all-powerful and almost Orwellian Cardassian state is not news to us. It fits with everything we’ve seen so far. The notion that there might be factions opposed to this status quo makes sense. Introducing a bunch of dissidents rejecting the values of the Central Command feels like a major step for the show’s over-arching plot. Indeed, given how radically the political winds on Cardassia will shift over the course of the show’s seven seasons, the introduction of the dissident movement should be a huge moment.

Their relationship needs a shot in the arm...

Their relationship needs a shot in the arm…

In the modern era of heavily serialised television, you could see Profit and Loss neatly slipping into some grand design. Natima Lang would become a recurring character, a voice of civilian opposition, and a potential major player when the winds of change began to blow. To be fair, Mary Crosby doesn’t really make enough of an impression her that we miss her in later Cardassian-centric episodes, but the character feels like she should more than a one-shot guest star.

After all, she claims that her students are the future of a new Cardassia. Given how much effort has been put into making Deep Space Nine a show about consequences and evolution, it feels like this is something that should get touched on again in more than a thematic way. The fact that Natima Lang has gone on from one guest appearance to being a major player in the expanded tie-in novels demonstrates that the emphasis Profit and Loss puts on her character was never really paid off.

Hold up there...

Hold up there…

Similarly, Odo’s decision to randomly release Lang and her students at the climax (“for justice”) feels like we’re missing a dramatic beat or two. The fact that Odo would refuse to hand over prisoners to the Cardassians for summary execution makes sense with what we know of the character. (It’s part of what makes Things Past so compelling.) However, it feels weird that he waits for Quark to show up before releasing them.

More than that, though, you’d imagine that somebody would have an objection to Odo’s action. As much as Sisko might “disagree” with the decision to extradite the prisoners, Odo still violated his direct orders. It feels weird that Odo doesn’t even get a chewing-out like O’Brien did back in Captive Pursuit. However, one would also suspect that the Bajoran Provisional Government would probably not be too happy with Odo’s unilateral decision to mess up a prisoner exchange. Particularly given Odo worked with the Cardassians and they have complete authority over the station.

Garak might be coming back into fashion...

Garak might be coming back into fashion…

These aren’t really big problems for a piece of episodic television. All the pieces fit together relatively logically, and it’s a clever use of what has already been established about Deep Space Nine to tell a story. However, it demonstrates that the show was already having some difficulty balancing the demands of episodic Star Trek and those of the longer-form story-telling model that Deep Space Nine would eventually embrace.

Given how Deep Space Nine has already demonstrated a willingness to develop a supporting cast (including characters like Garak, Dukat and Winn), have long-running plot threads (the mystery of Odo’s origin) and to deal with consequences of past actions (The Homecoming builds off In the Hands of the Prophets), the lack of any of that flowing from Profit and Loss is interesting, suggested the show hasn’t yet committed entirely to that model of television yet. Which is understandable.

Cloak and dagger dealings...

Cloak and dagger dealings…

However, the fact it feels so odd here serves as an indicator of how far Deep Space Nine has defined its own approach to developing character and story arcs. Had this been an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lang’s disappearance would feel par for the course and we’d simply assume that Odo received a harsh word from Sisko off-screen. The fact that we expect a bit more from Deep Space Nine serves as proof of how far the show has already moved towards serialised storytelling.

Indeed, the most interesting part of Profit and Loss is arguably a result of the episode coasting on the elements of stronger episodes around it. Profit and Loss presents us with a decidedly ambiguous take on the Cardassian exile Garak. In particular, it’s an episode that hinges on Garak being something of an antagonist. It involves a whole host of assertions and insinuations about his past, but it also serves to remind us that – behind Garak’s witty banter and wide smile – he’s something very different from what we’re used to seeing on Star Trek.

Of all the bars on all the promenades in all the worlds...

Of all the bars on all the promenades in all the worlds…

Garak is a Cardassian. He might be an exile, but that doesn’t mean he’s rejected their cultural norms, as the opening sequence helpfully reminds us. Discussing a work of Cardassian literature with Bashir, Garak defends the text. According to Garak, the protagonist of this Cardassian morality tale was right to turn his own brother over to the state. Garak himself is presented as a character with some element of underlying loyalty to Cardassia.

Despite his exile, he still keeps them informed of activities on the station. They mean have cut him off, but he still happily represents the Cardassian Union in conversation with Sisko. There’s still an air of ambiguity around Garak as a character, but it’s quite clear that some part of him still believes in the Cardassian Union. This was also suggested by his defense of the policy towards war orphans in Cardassians. Profit and Lace plays with the idea that Garak would be quite content to murder a teacher and her students in cold blood for the greater good.

Garak lets rip...

Garak lets rip…

It’s certainly a bold stance for a recurring guest star who is (generally) portrayed as reasonably well-meaning if a little willfully opaque at times. After all, his appearances in Past Prologue and Cardassians had his own objectives lining up quite nicely with those of our heroes, setting out to foil Bajoran terrorists and Gul Dukat. Profit and Loss adds a bit more ambiguity to the character, reminding us that he’s far from “plain and simple Garak.”

More than that, though, the episode seems rather consciously evasive on the question of Garak’s motivations. It’s implied that he doesn’t want to have to murder Lang and her students. When Toran instructs Garak to murder the dissidents, he hesitates. “But I suggested a prisoner exchange and the Central Command agreed.” Later on, Quark seems to pick up on the same reluctance. When Garak concedes the murder is “against [his] better judgement”, Quark insists, “But you admit that they’re wrong. Why don’t you stand up for what you believe in?”

Quark has really fallen for her...

Quark has really fallen for her…

It’s implied that Garak’s patriotism isn’t as strong as he might make it seem. He doesn’t seem to believe that Lang and her students pose too much of a risk. The decision to let them live at the end of the episode is played somewhat loosely, to the point where you believe he’s doing it just to screw over the recently-deceased Toran or spite towards the Cardassian government that denied his request to go home. It’s also possible – just possible – that this might be another facet of his patriotism at play.

However, read in context with the other Garak-heavy episode towards the end of the second season, The Wire, it’s quite clear that Garak probably just wants to home. When Toran visits Garak in his tailor shop, Garak seems hopefully that his information might have bought him a ticket back to Cardassia. “Am I to be rewarded for informing the Central Command about the presence of Hogue and Rekelen on the station?” he asks.

Plain, simple Garak...

Plain, simple Garak…

There’s an element of desperation to Garak’s character here, something that even Toran picks up on. After all, it seems like Garak’s optimism allows Toran to get the better of him. The fact that Toran isn’t the sharpest cookie in the box (what with taunting Garak about how he played him and all) indicates just how deep-seated Garak’s desire is. “I can’t believe that you were once considered clever,” Toran goads. “Do you think that completing this one simple task your reputation will be restored at Central Command?” To be fair, Garak accepts his own naivety relatively quickly, and promptly vapourises Toran.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the nuance here is down to Andrew Robinson’s wonderful portrayal of Garak. The actor has a knack for subtlety and implication that lends the character a beautifully ambiguous air. It’s always rather difficult to figure out precisely what Garak is thinking and what angle he’s playing, and Robinson is an essential part of what makes the character work so well.

The Prof is in the pudding...

The Prof is in the pudding…

Indeed, the small scene in the tailor shop between Quark and Garak is wonderful. Not only does it suggest that there’s an entire world on Deep Space Nine operating beneath Sisko’s radar (Promenade Merchants Unite!), but it also affords Robinson the chance to play with the viewer’s expectations of Garak. As Garak talks to Quark about Lang and her students, it’s never entirely certain whether the dialogue is meant as a threat or a warning.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and I know there’s nothing worse than following the wrong trend,” he offers. “Now you’re a smart fellow, with your own inimitable sense of style. Perhaps you should mention this to your lady friend. I’d hate to see her fall victim to fashion.” The choice and delivery of phrases like “smart fellow” and “lady friend” lend the whole thing a decidedly sinister old-school vibe. And yet, despite this, Garak’s concern seems almost genuine. “She’s chosen to associate herself with some rather flamboyant companions. It would be a tragedy if she got in the way when her friends go out of fashion.”

A dress to impress...

A dress to impress…

While Profit and Loss is an intriguing episode for Garak, primarily because of how it can be made to fit with the character’s story arc, it is somewhat less satisfying for Quark. After all, we’ve already had a “Quark is irresistible” plot this season, and giving any character two romance plotlines in one season of Star Trek is tempting fate. More than that, though, it doesn’t really work because it doesn’t feel true to Quark as a character.

For all it’s many flaws, Rules of Acquisition worked because it was willing to let Quark be Quark. It gave us a romantic subplot offering the character the possibility of a happy ending, but it was honest enough to concede that Quark’s own priorities don’t line up with that happy ending. As much as he seemed to genuinely care for Pel, he simply wasn’t willing to give up his bar or his Ferengi principles in order to be happy.

The hard cell...

The hard cell…

There’s an element of tragedy in Quark’s willingness to stick with things that make him unhappy and leave him unsatisfied instead of grabbing something that could leave him happy or fulfilled. After all, the bar is hardly a Ferengi success story, and Quark’s relationship with his own culture has always been troubled at best. However, he wants to be a “good Ferengi”, even if that only causes him more pain and suffering, and even if it costs him the chance at happiness. That’s just who Quark is.

So part of Profit and Loss feels like it betrays that. He does want Natima to stay on the station with him, and even tries to blackmail her students into leaving without her. However, when push comes to shove, Quark seems willing to forsake absolutely everything to be with the woman he loves. “Following me will only get you killed,” she warns him. “I’ll take that chance,” Quark vows. “I don’t care about the bar. I’ll turn it over to Rom. He’ll run it into the ground in a month, but it doesn’t matter. I have to be with you.”

Not another Quark romance! I beg you!

Not another Quark romance! I beg you!

He never seems to raise any objection to Lang earning her own living or wearing clothes, the problems that prevented Quark from embracing Pel back in Rules of Acquisition. To be fair, given his fixation on Dax and Kira (and even Pel), it’s implied that Quark likes strong women. [Insert Freudian analysis here.] However, it feels uncharacteristic for him to embrace it so readily. Indeed, it feels like Profit and Loss is taking a shortcut to the romantic plot that it wants.

And that plot is, of course, Casablanca. I’ve always found Deep Space Nine‘s frame of reference somewhat interesting. It has a decidedly more classical sensibility than the later Star Trek spin-offs. In the second-season alone, we’ve seen the show riff on various established pieces of popular culture. Ira Steven Behr has conceded that The Homecoming was a riff on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, while Rules of Acquisition channeled Yentl. Even Necessary Evil was designed as a gigantic homage to the film noir tradition.

Here's lookin' at you, Garak...

Here’s lookin’ at you, Garak…

Given the show’s decidedly classical tastes, and the fact that one of the main characters operates a bar, it’s not too surprising that the show did an homage to Casablanca. Somewhat surprisingly, given the finished episode, the original script was apparently an even more blatant homage, with the working title Here’s Looking at You. Apparently the producers felt it was too much and so that was scaled back for the finished version of the episode.

It’s to the credit of Armin Shimerman that the plot really works at all. Shimerman does a wonderful job of making Quark a far more likeable character than he really should be – even when the character isn’t best-served by the scripts or dialogue. It’s a shame, then, that Mary Crosby doesn’t really work as Natima Land. Crosby seems adrift in the role, and it’s hard to really invest in her affection for Quark.

This plan needs... some alterations...

This plan needs… some alterations…

When it comes down to it, Profit and Loss depends on the strength of the romantic relationship to work. Crosby never manages to quite convince us that Quark is the love of Natima’s life or that Natima is interesting enough to be the love of Quark’s life. As a result, the whole episode falls a bit flat. (On the other hand, Crosby is at least a stronger performer than Heidi Swedberg and Michael Reilly Burke, playing her two young students with all the charm and charisma of two wooden planks.)

Profit and Loss isn’t a bad episode, on its own merits. It falls well short of being a good one, but it is basically functional. However, there’s some strange hesitation about the use of long-form storytelling here – an indication that perhaps the show hasn’t committed as firmly to structured story arcs as it may have led us to believe. The continuity here is no tighter than that of any of the Romulan stories from the third or fourth season of The Next Generation, building off the familiar characteristics of a particular race, but without a clear direction or purpose.

You might be interested in our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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8 Responses

  1. You started out saying how this episode wouldn’t be remembered as anyone’s favorite – I actually liked it a lot. Seeing Quark in such an unusual light, and actually being convincing as a desperate and contrite lover was such fun. The “convincing” bit was doubly impressive considering that his willingness to just hand over his bar to his brother and make off with Latima should be entirely against character for him. Oh, and Latima actually following up the “then go ahead and shoot me” by shooting him had me laughing out loud. The follow-up (“Of course it hurts, it’s supposed to hurt, it’s a phaser!“) was hilarious, too.

    And then of course there’s Garak – when is that character ever not fun and intriguing to watch? Clever, charming, multi-facetted and never quite predictable. DS9 definitely had it’s shudder-inducing moments (a planet named “New Berlin”? Started out it’s existence as an asylum for fans of Heimatfilme who entirely lost contact with reality?) but Garak is always delicious. I think that “…when her friends go out of fashion” still sends tingles over my spine, and it’s no wonder that he was a mayor player in one of the (IMNSHO) best episodes, In the Pale Moonlight.

    I really like Natima, too, because she had a touch of calm to her and a decidedness that wasn’t near as spectacular as, say, Kira’s rage against the Cardassians, but at least as convincing. Yes, bloody shame that she wasn’t used as a recurring character. Cardassian dissidents turn up again later and they are certainly an important and useful element, so why not make more use of them? Not to mention that Quark is shown mooning over other females in later episodes; after his willingness to throw pretty much everything over board for Latima that seems like a bad case of Reset Button even for Star Trek.

    • Look like I came down with a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease!

      All joking aside, though, I do love that Garak/Quark scene and Andrew Robinson is just a pleasure to watch in any scene. (Particularly the scene where it seems like he lets the trio go simply to piss off Gul Toran’s ghost.) But most of Profit and Loss falls kinda flat for me. It’s not atrocious, but it’s veyr bland, and it feels a bit weird in context with the rest of the show.

      Then again, my favourite Voyager episode might be Meld, which is an episode that is… not much loved even among Voyager’s first two seasons. And yet, I’d argue it’s the best use of a guest cast member in the show’s seven-year run and the third-best episode in the franchise to deal with Vulcans.

      • … and here I am, replying ridiculously late. I’m blaming this on the mention of “Meld”. And I’m blaming the effect that episode has on me on the presence of Wormtong… ehm, Brad Dourif. Devious, layered, intelligent, weirdly calm and – how could this happen? On Voyager? – actually being different at the end of the episode as compared to what he was at it’s beginning.

        My theory is that he was killed off for threatening to infect the crew with chronic Character Development. Developing in as well as between episodes? Showing the effects of his past actions as well as further development in “Basics” I & II? And all of this in a double-episode that was otherwise 60 minutes of painful stereotypes fresh out of the worse writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs? What a criminal waste of a good actor that was. My theory on the evolution of the story goes as this: Two different writers being hired for the “Voyager crew against brutish, grunting natives” and the “Suter and the Doctor against the Kazon”. The writer responsible for the down-on-the-planet plot quickly realized that the other plot was six times better and therefor maneuvered, bribed and back-stabbed until that other plot was cut down to a few minutes to keep down the competition.

        Brad Dourif, upon reading the resulting script and head-desking until a welcome numbness set in, saved himself from the risk of ever being put through something like that again by conditioning for Suter to be killed off.

        If I just think of Suter being rehabilitated and a recurring character… oh, what could have been. I think I need to go and watch some old B-movies with Brad Dourif to make up for it. That’s the thing about movies which don’t aim at being block-busters: they don’t have to play it safe and can have the bad guy produce, from his coat, a pile of weapons. And a huge rubber chicken.

  2. Odo allowing the dissidents to escape may have been part of the reason he was let go at the start of Season 3; all Sisko would say was Starfleet were concerned about recent security breaches on DS9 and the incident with Natima, allowing Cardassians to escape rather then turn them over to Cardassia to secure the release of Bajoran prisoners no doubt upset the “special relationship” between the Federation and Bajor.

  3. I found Odo’s actions somewhat reasonable and justified – he merely resisted executive influence on the jurisdiction in a way. Not sure how the lines are drawn on Bajor, but it seemed to make sense from the perspective of checks and balances. If I am not mistaken, that is… And setting Lang free seems to be the right course of action, as having admitted to Bajoran prisoners almost makes sure they should be freed anyway (given the treaties you and The Siege mentioned).

    And the scene between Odo and Quark, the latter begging him on his knees: I found this whole dialogue very important to further characterize their relationship and either of them. Very memorable, as well as Garak’s beginning realisation in the end that he should not bet on the Central Command to get back to his fatherland.

    Quark was unwilling to give everything to Pel for she violated his kind-of conservative image of Ferengi culture. Quark was unwilling to go that far. Natima not being a Ferengi seems another story. I bought that though the relationship came somewhat out of the blue. Btw, you are so right: “Shimerman does a wonderful job of making Quark a far more likeable character than he really should be” – he is just a great actor or got the perfectly fitting role. Even the worst Ferengi episodes are above average in my mind due to his comic timing and acting ability (though not sure about Profit and Lace…).

    What I love about this episode is is that Quark, Garak, and Odo are all shown to be opportunists of some sort, and at the same time to adhere to some strict belief system. For Quark it is pleasure though unattainable and costly, for Odo it is justice being at times in conflict with justice, and for Garak it is patriotism but for an ideal Cardassia.

    Why was Lang never back as part of the story? Well, maybe she was killed, as Una McCormack’s “Never-ending sacrifice” suggests (if I remember correctly).

    • No idea why Lang never came back. Maybe Crosby was too big a name? Maybe the writers didn’t think that the episode quite worked? Maybe they didn’t like the chemistry between the two actors? Who can tell? (Deep Space Nine’s arc is fantastic, but there are a lot of dropped threads or done-in-ones that tease future stories that never materialise; Bajor’s admittance, anything involving Shakaar, Thomas Riker, etc.)

      • True, but somehow I prefer dropping some things instead of trying to connect everything with everything else. This small world-approach seems always forced to me. In real life many things are connected, but oftentimes accidental. And most of the things are not, and we forget about them. It might not be a creative decision, but for the wrong reasons I think dropping some arcs is okay. And why would we as viewers have to see everything. Some things should be left to imagination.

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